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4621 N Ravenswood Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640
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CUSTOM E-LEARNING

NogginLabs was founded on the notion that custom e-learning design and development is the ultimate horizontal industry. Time and again, each new project, client, and industry proves it. The biggest advantage of the e-learning horizontal is cross-pollinating ideas from two wildly different domains. A restaurant service simulation for iPad may influence a high-fashion online retail challenge. E-learning for financial advisors in a bank could inspire a mobile outreach program for cancer survivors. This variety also keeps the creative folks at NogginLabs fresh. Fresh learning ideas and designs come from a set of constantly changing constraints.

Our not-so-secret sauce: creative writers make better e-learning

Labs-Blog

Our not-so-secret sauce: creative writers make better e-learning

Lindsay Bland

NogginLabs Senior Instructional Designer Lindsay Hunter spends her days building custom e-learning and her nights and weekends writing short stories and novels. Her first book, Daddy's, a collection of flash fiction, was published in the fall of 2010 by featherproof books, a boutique press in Chicago.

Her second collection, DON'T KISS ME, was published by FSG Originals in the spring of 2013 and was named one of Amazon's 10 Best Books of the Year: Short Stories. Her first novel, Ugly Girls, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in November 2014, and made a variety of best-of lists that year. I recently dragged her into a conference room to learn more about how these two writing worlds relate.

How does your work at NogginLabs influence your creative writing life, and vice versa?

LH: I’ve been here since February 2008 and everything that I’ve ever published in my outside life has happened since I’ve been at NogginLabs. And so I often think, “well what was it? Is it NogginLabs? What is it about NogginLabs that these two worlds are sort of feeding each other?”

One thing is that when you’re writing a course script, you’re sort of absorbing yourself in this new content and it can be anything from pharma sales to finance for teenagers. You’re sitting down and you’re gritting your teeth until it’s done. It really taught me to sit down and get through something and fight through the tough parts.

At NogginLabs, we always like to say that constraints force innovation. That’s a huge aspect of my personal creative writing life, putting constraints on myself. I work with word count goals. I put constraints on myself because it's an achievable milestone for me, so I can feel like I’m victorious constantly and it’s the same thing with NogginLabs. We have all kinds of different constraints when working with our clients. If you sit and look at it as a wall you can jump over or bust through versus a wall that stops you, it’s the same thing with writing a novel or short story. You find a new way out or you find a new way in.

Why do you think NogginLabs hires creative writers to write custom e-learning courses?

LH: Because creative people find new ways into things and the output we get is different. Creative people want what they make to be fun, engaging, different, and authentic. That authenticity is something that NogginLabs is really an expert in. We sit down and we get to know your content, your employees, your culture. Then we think, okay, here’s this information I’m supposed to convey. I can simply type it out or have you answer some type of knowledge question. Or I can make you sit in some sort of experience that makes you understand that content in a different way, whether it be having a conversation with a virtual employee or completing a game. The only way you’re going to really understand something is to actually do it. So we constantly focus on how we can bring that to life online.

Just as in creative writing, by trusting your instincts and going in a new direction that may feel uncomfortable at first, or wild or crazy or not doable, you often come to a new interaction that is really valuable.

We follow a gated development process. How does that compare to the drafting process you use when writing a novel? How do you not just constantly iterate?

LH: I personally hate iterating. I tend to edit as I go and at that point I send it out. I think that if I go down the path of iteration then I would never stop and I would find too many reasons to doubt what I had done. You know, I get rejected because I send things out too early or whatever, but that is something that we try to do at NogginLabs, stop the iterating. Let’s keep moving forward. We never say “Here is a perfect thing that we think has no changes in it.” With each deliverable at NogginLabs, we are always saying, “We’ve heard you, and here is what we’ve heard. This thing that we’ve made is based on our discussions, our meetings, our basic beginning points, what do you think?”

What we’ve found is that it’s important for our clients to have that visually represented so that they can react to it as soon as they possibly can. That gets the conversation going in a more productive direction. NogginLabs is always trying to keep moving forward. We want to meet your deadline even more than you want to meet your deadline.

When you’re writing a novel, it’s a pretty solitary endeavor and it ultimately belongs to you. Here at NogginLabs, building custom courseware is incredibly collaborative and we get a ton of feedback from clients. How does this client collaboration impact your mindset at work?

LH: For a lot of people that start as writers at NogginLabs, that’s a very difficult hurdle to overcome. You are pouring your creativity into something. They say this all the time in writing programs, or writing in general: kill your darlings. Clients help you kill your darlings. It helps you let go. That has helped me tremendously as I’m writing, not that I don't still have a hard time and am not super critical of myself because I am, but you just know going into something that you’re going to give it your best shot.

It’s a difficult thing to get over in any sort of writing career, when you’re being edited or read by anyone, but especially when it comes tied to something you’re getting paid to do and want to do well. It’s hard for something to come back blown up with edits but you learn over time that it’s part of the job and it’s a good thing, because it’s what is so collaborative about our process.

When you’re writing a novel, you’re not necessarily considering audience in the same way that you do when you’re building e-learning. In our work, you often know exactly who the audience is. How does this concept of audience matter to you?

LH: When I’m writing my novel, it’s a different kind of collaboration between writer and reader. I do want the readers to be collaborative and be involved in the process of reading. I think good writers are always good readers because you’re making these leaps and the leap that you’re making is completely different than someone else’s leap. It’s based on who you are, you’re experiences, your memory, your history, your expectations, all that stuff.

What’s different about e-learning is that you’re trying to create behavioral change. It’s up to you to get them to this place of understanding. Your literary intention might still be in there, but there is also a concrete milestone that you’re trying to get them to, there’s a goal. You have to know how these people like to be communicated to, how they like to interact with things, whether or not they like to be surprised or guided, you have to think about all of that. It’s quite complicated, actually, but you learn these skills as you go.

Good writers are instinctively just curious. They never stop asking questions, and they ask questions around those questions. They are curious about the content, the company, the employees and curious about what we can do internally to achieve your project goals. Constantly questioning is what makes a good writer.

NogginLabs subscribes to the idea that real learning happens at the point of failure. How do you balance the idea of pushing learners and making them uncomfortable versus catering to their comfort and delivering a very watered-down learning experience?

LH: We talk a lot about performance-based learning here and learning by failure. You should be failing in these courses. That’s something that is a little frightening for some of our clients to accept because they want buy in and they also want measured change. So if we put their learners in a situation where they can make the wrong choice, they often are afraid that that isn’t teaching them anything--it’s letting them make a bad choice and then move on. But what we do is let them make that bad choice so they can then see the consequences of that bad choice without doing that in real life. We want you to fail bad. We spend a lot of time writing feedback and consequences and interruptions and all sorts of things that happen as a result of failure.

We often try to push clients in the direction of letting learners fail. We always say that our core learner is Brian (founder of NogginLabs) because Brian is a button masher. He thinks that he knows what to do and likes to figure out what happens if he does anything. We think about those learners a lot, because those are the learners who think that they’re doing their jobs the best that they can, but they are actually missing something important.

If you’re tooling along and making the same decisions you make every day, and one of those decisions is wrong, that is where the real learning happens. In that moment, if they see a variety of ways to respond to something and they choose the option that they would do in real life, or choose the one they think is correct because it’s the longest answer or it’s worded very technically, and we stop them in that moment and say, “actually no, that’s not the right thing to do and here’s why.” That is the moment where they are really going to start paying attention and really retain that. You know, if you run a stop sign and you didn’t know you couldn’t run a stop sign, and you get pulled over and get a ticket, you never forget that.

So basically our e-learning is just us constantly handing out tickets.

LH: Yeah, we’re the police. We’re police officers.